Business culture in times of change

8th November 2021 Posted by

Blog by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Human Resources and Health and Safety Officer, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

Change provokes a range of emotions in employees and poses some difficult challenges for business managers. Right now, the prospect of major change is a live issue for people in many businesses as they look to recover and transform, not least of all following the implications of the pandemic.

Anyone who has been more than a few years in any company will have lived and worked through change – it is the only constant after all. A classic definition of change management is ‘the process of continually renewing an organisation’s direction, structure, and capabilities to serve the ever-changing needs of external and internal customers’. Markets, customer expectations, technology, employees’ needs, environmental regulations, and responsibilities – all are evolving, and businesses have to adapt, restructure and change their ways of working to remain relevant, competitive and effective. They must be agile!

To implement this type of developmental change smoothly requires appropriate training of the people involved, adjustments to processes and procedures, and – as with any form of change – clear communications. The culture of your organisation can absorb moderate incremental change such as this, especially if it’s a healthy, positive culture. People adapt more easily, morale is not adversely affected, and people get on with their work without losing focus or motivation.

Transformational change is a different matter. It is bound up with the culture of an organisation and people’s values and beliefs, as our own recent history shows.

SUEZ recycling and recovery UK could once have been described as a waste disposal company. Our core activity then was disposing of waste in landfills, which were expertly engineered to control emissions of leachate and gas over the sites’ lifecycle, reflecting the industry and policy at the time.

Over time, and with the foresight and extraordinary vision of our then CEO, David Palmer Jones, waste came to be seen as a resource. As a result, the recycling side of the business grew as we transformed the business to offer a more integrated waste management service to customers, encouraged also by new thinking on policy in the EU and the UK, within both central and local government. But incremental change can only take you so far, so fast.

So, more than a decade ago, the company embarked on a more profound, culture change as it set out to re-invent the business. The business would be completely re-engineered – from waste management to recycling and resource management. From a linear to a circular economy model. This required a massive investment programme in new facilities and technologies – which continues today – along with a raft of new skills and expertise, training, and supporting people development initiatives.

That entire process began with the new company vision whereby ‘we want to live in a society where there is no more waste’ – quite radical for what was seen as primarily a waste business. This vision and its guiding values were developed in consultation with our people and communicated clearly and consistently from the top, right through the organisation.

Led by David Palmer-Jones, we went on to pioneer the circular economy in our sector, supporting our customers’ transition by committing to extract maximum value from material resources at every stage of their life cycle. The waste disposer had become a recycling specialist, electric power generator, manufacturer of alternative fuels, compost producer, processor of waste wood, trader in reclaimed materials – and innovator, fabricating concrete blocks from street sweepings and exploiting advanced technologies such as gasification.

This brought many other changes. Before, for example, it is likely that we were viewed as just another big corporate by community groups and conservation campaigners. Now, we work closer than ever with the voluntary sector, collaborating on a variety of activities from re-use of furniture and white goods to retraining of prisoners and community enterprise. Social value is embedded along with environmental benefit in our decision-making – as part of our commitment, which I’ve previously described, to the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit – our framework within which all plans and decisions are made.

The change of culture permeates everything – from how we developed our health and safety behavioural programme to our Wellness for All charter – and it’s reflected in our achievement of being recognised among the Sunday Times’ Top 25 Best Big Companies to work for. Research studies show that corporate culture is as important as strategy for business success. Open and proactive, our culture also leaves our people well placed to cope and thrive amid further change.

As we continue on our transformation, we do so in much the same way as we have always done – and in line with what we believe is best practice in change management. For us here at SUEZ, this goes beyond calls for strong and visible leadership, listening to people’s concerns, providing the support managers and employees need, and clear and open communications throughout the process; these should be a given. In addition, it extends to engaging our people in identifying the change needed to thrive as individuals, teams, a business, and indeed, an industry and encouraging them to help achieve it.

Engagement with our people is one of our Critical Success Factors and is implicit in how we do things around here. For instance, Board members and senior leaders spend time at our sites to identify good practice and areas for improvement, and importantly, get a sense of the work environment and employee experience of our people on the ground. In addition, our CEO, John Scanlon, regularly delivers a webinar that always includes live question and answer sessions.

During the summer, John led a series of listening sessions with people at all levels across the business. The purpose was to hear the thoughts and feelings of more than 700 colleagues about change and what support they might find valuable.

Our in-house Learning and Development team have provided two important elements of that support programme. The first is a 90-minute ‘Preparing for Change’ workshop. This online session helps managers understand how they themselves feel about change, so they empathise with their team members and can better facilitate similar sessions for them. We can also provide follow-on advice and tips on important interpersonal skills, such as active listening, having difficult conversations, and communicating effectively.

The second programme is a full-day training intervention, called ‘Leading people through change’. This focuses on best practice in managing change, how to help team members ‘buy in’ to change, and how to mitigate apprehension and resistance.

When we think about change, it’s important to do so from a whole-person perspective, not just focus on what needs to change and the mechanics of trying to implement it. Our commitment to wellbeing comes into play here. We have been running Wellness for All webinars every week since the start of the pandemic. These recordings are a fantastic resource, and many cover highly relevant topics such as anxiety, mindfulness, resilience and coping with change. These webinars and accompanying focus sessions are always well attended and receive great feedback.

Change can be unsettling for people. But it’s also a constant in business, if not life. Change management – and a strong ‘can do’ culture that engage people in a meaningful, honest, and authentic way – helps everyone navigate uncertainty to secure the endless opportunities that it can present.

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